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Why future-proofing infrastructure is more important than ever

Fri 17 Apr 2020 | Umaima Haider

Perhaps the number one issue facing businesses and society is the need to keep pace with digital transformation. But what does it mean to keep pace with digital transformation? In layman’s terms, think about it like this: The train is leaving the station, and individuals and organisations need to get on board quickly to achieve business goals.

The speed of technological change is constantly and explosively accelerating, with new topographies being rolled out faster every year. As the saying goes, everything which can be is being digitalised. If businesses and society cannot keep up these shifts they will struggle to scale and maybe even survive.

Many veteran technology businesses have successfully aligned with these fast-changing digital dynamics and cloud-courting has been a notable differentiator. Consider Adobe. Founded in 1982, the company began by offering software for desktop PCs. Over time, it became a cloud services giant, eventually surpassing $11 billion in revenue in 2019.

Microsoft is another great example. The tech giant reported $33.7 billion in Q4 2019 revenue, of which its Azure cloud platform contributed 64 percent, Surface 14 percent, and LinkedIn 25 percent. Just imagine if Microsoft haven’t introduced Azure in 2010 and seized the cloud opportunity – would they have been able to achieve this revenue?

In 2017, Microsoft released Teams – a collaboration platform that combines persistent workplace chat, video meetings, file storage, and application integration. Due to Covid-19, the majority of the world’s workforce are working remotely and using various teleconferencing tools.

Microsoft Teams is among one of the most commonly used. Over a week’s period in March, it leapt from 32 million to 44 million active daily users, almost exclusively fuelled by the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. This is over a three-fold increase since July 2019 (at that time, Teams registered 13 million active users). Teams tapped into the unstoppable shift towards remote working, Covid-19 has just accelerated this dynamic and its business value is bearing fruit.

Throughout the world, healthcare sectors are battling on the frontline of the pandemic. In UK, NHS (National Health Service) Digital carried out a survey and asked 1000 people if they were using more NHS technology (such as apps and websites) as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. 26 percent said  NHS tech usage had increased, while a further 12 percent strongly agreed. Some of the NHS technologies that have seen the biggest increases are the NHS App, websites and Electronic Prescribing Service (EPS). Additionally, NHS Digital streamlined a virtual NHS Smartcard, allowing new staff fast access to hospital systems. This has been achieved through a well-organised digital transformation plan.

According to Ben Davison NHS Digital’s Executive Director for Product Development:

“These are unprecedented times and with social distancing now the norm for everyone, we’re really starting to see digital technologies come to the fore – not just in the NHS but in all walks of life. We’re fully prepared for the numbers using NHS tech to continue increasing over the coming days and weeks, as the general public continues to play a key role in helping to ease the burden on our fantastic frontline services”.

This doesn’t mean that only these sectors need to keep pace with the digital transformation. Other sectors including arts, banking, sports, retail must also move fast to get well-established in the market. All companies looking to do so, however, encounter a problem: the acceleration of digital technologies is faster than the pace of transformation in organisations.

Prepare to fail

As Stephen Hawking once said, “intelligence is the ability to adapt to change”.

Since 2000, about 52 percent of companies on the Fortune 500 list have become obsolete. According to Harvard Business Review, many of those companies lacked the ability to keep up with digital evolution. With the rapid pace of digital transformation, it’s more important than ever for businesses to make thoughtful choices about their technology and innovation strategies.

Economists who study scientific progress and technical change call digital transformation a general-purpose technology—that is, one that has the power to continually transform itself, progressively branching out and heightening productivity not only in ICT industry but across all sectors and industries.

The problem with ageing technology

The data centre sector provides a stark example of how ageing technology can hold back transformation efforts. Take some learnings from the EU-funded EURECA project into ICT infrastructure. Conducted within the Enterprise Computing Research Lab at the University of East London the project is investigating ways of making data centres more sustainable, with a focus on the public sector.

After analysing over 300 public sector data centres from pilots in Ireland, Netherlands and United Kingdom, we discovered that the public sector on the whole ran ageing IT infrastructure. 40 percent of servers were more than five years old, accounting for 66 percent of energy consumption while only producing 7 percent of the compute capacity. This was a revealing figure in terms of the scale of wasted energy.

And recently Reuters reported that some lower-paid U.S. workers could effectively get a short-term raise if they lose their jobs during the coronavirus crisis thanks to US government computer systems that rely on 1950s-era technology. Many US state departments depend on decades-old mainframe systems based on the COBOL language, which was first introduced in all the way back in 1959.

Aging mainframes do not have the ability to calculate different payments per worker, which is why US officials crafted a $2.2 trillion general purpose stimulus package offering an increase of $600 for every worker. The US government has warned the increase net low-wage workers more than they earned for their work— which they contend carries the risk of inadvertently driving up unemployment.

Clearly this demonstrates that aging technology not only reduces performance, but has negative environmental (in terms of energy wastage) and economic impacts (paying more than should be in actual, in the form of electricity bills and wages).

Making tomorrow’s technologies more durable and sustainable

In light of concerns that technology cycles produce an inefficient amount of outdated technology, many IT leaders are working to ensure the sustainability and durability of future technologies via open-source practices.

Open-source software (OSS) methodology has existed for over a couple of decades. OSS means refers to any computer software that’s distributed with a modifiable source. Mozilla’s Firefox web browser; PHP scripting language; Python programming language; Apache HTTP web server are among the OSS performing well in the computing world.

Open-source hardware concept took a dominant role when the Open Compute Project (OCP) began life in 2011 at Facebook as a revolutionary idea to do for data centre hardware what OSS did for the software market. In other words, the OCP comes up with cutting-edge, super-efficient designs that any company can use (and modify) to build their own hardware.

In 2017, LinkedIn initiated the Open19 project with the same aim in mind. According to Uptime Institute: Just 3 percent of survey respondents said they were deploying Open19 hardware or designs, with another eight percent evaluating Open19. That’s a total of about 50 respondents deploying or evaluating Open19. And 54 percent said that they were not aware of Open19 at all.

To achieve hardware durability, we need to raise awareness about open-source strategies and the benefits delivered by adopting them, such as cost-effective, environmental friendly and easy to modify infrastructure that meets the requirements of emerging technologies like 5G, AI, and Edge.

What’s the solution?

To avoid becoming obsolete in the way of adopting latest digital technologies, companies should take the following key measures:

  • Adapt education policy. Companies should provide staff with the latest skills (in the form of short courses) they need to work in the emerging economy.
  • Competition policy need to be enforced. Create workshops where everyone can discuss innovation and explore what the future holds. You should analyse your competitive environment and develop game-changing plans at least once a year, keeping an eye out for new technological trends that could impact operations in the next 2-5 years.
  • Focus on new metrics and KPIs. A well-built infrastructure will allow you to identify new metrics and use new digital tools to support evolving performance reviews.
  • Follow and adopt latest policies, standards and best practices in their products and services.

Adapting to new technology and fully leveraging its features is imperative to the modern organisation and it is what leads to businesses to maximise ROI. In addition, keeping pace with new solutions helps prepare organisations for unpredictable situations such as the Covid-19 pandemic. Those who furnished their organisations with future-proofed digital infrastructure will be the first to survive-and move past this pandemic efficiently.

Experts featured:

Umaima Haider

Research Fellow
University of East London


Coronavirus ocp open source
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